A shift in focus has turned around the fortunes of Florida's PR market.Florida's place as a bellwether is well established. With five major media markets and a large population spread across age, ethnic, economic, and social lines, the state reflects national changes that occur from urban centers to the heartland. Early this year, several PR industry leaders noticed a distinct shift in mood and a lifting of the post-September 11 malaise. For PR business in the Sunshine State, the result has been a raft of proposal requests and investment in new initiatives, albeit with a lingering tone of caution. Stability during last year's economic flux was achieved by shoring up existing client relationships. Agencies report, however, that they spent a disproportionate amount of unbillable time and resources responding to proposals that never actually materialized into business. "We've seen the same number of proposals in the past four months as we saw all of last year," says Edelman SVP Jim Burke, adding that the increase in volume points to a psychological rebound in the marketplace. Flexibility in times of flux The challenge this year has been persuading clients to loosen their purse strings and actually invest in the proposed plans. Carrie Zimmerman's hospitality and travel PR firm, The Zimmerman Agency, caters to an industry that suffered one of the stiffest blows of the recession. "The main key in the past year has been to convince people they have to spend money rightfully to get back to where they used to be," Zimmerman says. "Travelers are not going to return unless they know you're there and who you are." Her argument seems to echo across all sectors of Florida's economy. Late last year, clients began retooling their approach to business, focusing on their core competencies. Specialty retailer Office Depot, for example, decided to direct its marketing messages squarely to small-business owners, who make up more than three-fourths of its customer base. This year, the company partnered with the Small Business Development Center at Florida Atlantic University to present seminars in which small-business owners are educated on start-up, financial, marketing, and operational strategies by experts. Brian Levine, director of PR at Office Depot, says the seminars provide strong leadership positioning for the company, and pays sales dividends as well. "The more successful [business owners are], the more we can build a solid relationship with them moving forward," he notes. The travel and hospitality resorts and attractions have shifted their communications focus from international and cross-country travelers to a previously forgotten drive-in marketplace. Such moves forced local retail destinations to invest in aggressive PR programs. With the natural overflow from curious tourists at an ebb, retail outlets found themselves needing to capture mindshare of locals who had grown immune to their draw. This economic and communications bootstrapping is signaled by redevelopment programs across the state, such as the Festival Bay factory outlet center in Orlando and the Bradenton Riverfront project. Joel Curran, SVP and managing director of CKPR, launched Festival Bay, and says retail investment is the best indicator that the economy has turned a corner. "People are still looking for diversions," he says. CKPR has been helping Festival Bay brand itself against other venues in the attraction-packed Central Florida region, and Curran says the retailer's choice to invest in marketing and PR at a time when others have held back has provided his client a strategic advantage. While some in the industry, like Zimmerman and Curran, have convinced clients to spend money, the cautionary dam is still being shored up by lingering uncertainty and tough economic times in Latin America. Patricia Thorp says that although her corporate communications agency Thorp & Company is enjoying an influx of new business, she describes this year as one of the lowest in terms of budgets. "We have a lot of midsize clients, and people want a lot more for their money." Clients are also looking for a high touch with subject-matter expertise. "We're in a place and time where companies can demand that type of service," says Lisa Mozloom, managing director of Golin/Harris Florida. "The expectation is that more senior people are available and understand the day-to-day issues of their business." According to Mozloom, clients are also demanding a more measurable ROI that is not equated with clip books and website hits. "Clients tell me that they'd rather have the phone ring with one good customer than 20 leads that don't make a difference to their business," she says. "That's a different discipline than traditional PR." Indeed, baseline business theory as it relates to communications strategy is not part of mainstream PR education, and is something that not all PR professionals grasp. This is perhaps one reason boutique agencies with highly specialized niches are bolstering the Florida PR economy at present. "At the very least," Mozloom says, "it is a good sign that there are more companies out there that see the value of PR." New opportunities emerge A definite uptick in PR activity has been recorded from the telecommunications, healthcare, aerospace, and defense-industry sectors largely from products and applications related to homeland security. The large Florida-based healthcare industry is now focused on biohazard response mechanisms, and Tallahassee's Datamaxx - which dominates the country's law-enforcement communications market - produces tools such as mobile satellites, handheld devices, and police-cruiser laptops. In a related field, Florida Fortune 1000 company World Fuel Services has seen nothing but blue skies since September 11. The company serves the fueling needs of passenger airline, air freight, and shipping companies in far-flung corners of the globe. As the Federal Aviation Administration began restricting the quantity and type of packages that can be transported on passenger airlines, the air-freight industry caught a boom. As a publicly traded company, World Fuel has also had to communicate its compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. "Rather than begrudgingly try to comply, we've gone on the attack," says CFO Frank Shea. In fact, the company decided to use Sarbanes-Oxley as an excuse to retool its governance and aggressively communicate the changes as a competitive advantage. He says the company has also increased the number of presentations it makes to trade groups and individual customers. While many agencies are being tapped to aid change management at companies such as World Fuel, a conspicuous difference from the late '90s is that no one agency has been awarded AOR status. Assignments tend to be finite and project-oriented, rather than addressing a long-term strategic branding approach. Thorp says her firm is routinely called in to help companies communicate through bankruptcy and reorganization. On a more positive note, she says there is a greater call for PR to serve the legal and accounting communities. "These groups are coming of age," says Thorp. "Today, they find client bids more competitive, and they need to differentiate themselves from the pack, so attorneys and accountants are now hiring PR counsel." Despite the fact that Florida is home to one the country's largest Hispanic populations and its location as a corridor to Latin America, over the past two years many noteworthy PR agencies like Ketchum withdrew their resources from this market. Still standing are such agencies as Burson-Marsteller and Fleishman-Hillard, as well as a spate of midsize and boutique firms, which stand to benefit from sustaining their business through the downtime. These firms have anchored their expertise in pan-regional marketing and PR to the domestic Spanish-language market just as corporations like Citibank, H&R Block, and Procter & Gamble have bought into the value of this outreach. Rissig Licha, managing director of Fleishman in Miami, says his agency has experienced 15%-20% growth this year alone as a result. An eye on the horizon While all indicators show improvement in the overall Florida economy, agencies there are reaching beyond the peninsula's borders to mine for clients. "Atlanta has failed to reach beyond to second-tier cities," says Curran. "That's where we think our growth is going to come from." Curran says he expects a full 50% of his agency's business to come from outside Florida in the next three to five years. Another lesson the state's PR community has learned in the downturn is the importance of providing interactive solutions to their clients. "Interactive is not a trend - it's not going to go away," says Zimmerman. "It is the future of global travel and everything else, and has to be a very powerful part of any PR campaign." Long-range forecasts are still indeterminate. Office Depot's Levine advises caution, calling the economic environment "challenging. We're kind of at a jobless recovery right now," he notes. "We need to see more growth in the small-business category. Recovery is not really a sure thing right now."